Arts Listings

Theater: Central Works Brings ‘Andromache’ to City Club

Friday October 20, 2006

A veiled woman enters a long chamber by the near door, kneels in a patch of light, tosses back her veil and mutters some kind of devotional, eyes heavenward. Another veiled woman hurries in and spirits the first away through the far door. A robed man enters, goes to the far door, but falls to the floor in tears, crying out “Andromache!” A sword-bearing man enters, whispers to the prostrate man, and they leave. A young man in a tattered robe enters. 

The entrances and exits—and quick, occasional glances—through the three doors into (and out of) the salon in the Berkeley City Club where Central Works is playing a revival of cofounder Gary Graves’ “radical adaptation” of Racine’s Andromache are accorded the status of events, as befits theater derived from the great poet and classicist, whose works combine closely interlocked dialogues as allies, antagonists and lovers meet. 

But the combinations of movement in and out are never so silent as at the start. The story begins to flow, weaving a web of complications, ever-changing in its fascinating complexity. It seems to reach deeper and deeper, the further the figures of the play are torn from their original positions. The contradictory relations of each character to the others are made up of what R. D. Laing called double-binds, but these bonds are tied to the axis of a greater world beyond the relationships within the chamber, around which revolve the greatest moral, social and metaphysical issues.  

Pylades (Sean Williford), the young man in the tattered robe, meets another entrant, his old friend Orestes (Paul Rodrigues), son of Agamemnon. They had been separated by shipwreck, Pylades beached on Lemnos, now a servant in the palace. 

Orestes, revenged upon his mother, who murdered Agamemnon on his return from Troy, has come on a mission from Argos. He comes to witness the marriage of dead Achilles’ son, Pyrrhus (Alex Klein) to Menelaus’ daughter, Ermione (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). He also demands the young son of Hector, who Achilles slew, and Andromache (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), given to Pyrrhus as a war prize. 

But Orestes loves Ermione. Ermione tries to forget her passion for the blood-soaked Orestes and loves Pyrrhus, who in turn wants only Andromache, bound to the dead Hector by an oath of lifelong fidelity and cold to her captor. 

These principals are attended on and in some ways doubled by their confidants. Besides Pylades for Orestes, there’s Andromache’s maidservant Sephissa (Karuna Tanahashi), Ermione’s nursemaid, Kleone (Susan Allen) and Pyrrhus’ captain of the guard, formerly Achilles’ bodyguard Phoenix (Ken Ingram), who begins as a kind of gray eminence, keeping the distraught Pyrrhus in line with his obligations as a Greek conqueror, to marry Ermione and secure the ties with the homeland, but whom Pyrrhus countermands as his truer intentions strengthen into resolve. 

But Orestes, following what he takes to be Ermione’s nudge towards Greek honor (and her love), strikes out, seeming to rashly cut out the heart of the joint dilemma in a new effusion of blood, but paradoxically freeing its most passive cypher to take command. 

Roland Barthes, whose On Racine is the great post-war (World War II, not Troy) exposé of the dark tangle of passions behind the rhetoric of the dramatist’s pure Alexandrine couplets, calls Andromache a drama of transition between old and new orders: an older, jealous dispensation, and a newer, consentual one. The older order rules by sacred vows and bonds, by contract and by enclosure, a perfect set-up for a tightly wound chamber drama, in which Pyrrhus experiences a kind of conversion. 

The cast is an exceptional ensemble, each cutting a fine figure. Graves’ adaptation (he also directs the play) retains the story structure, but concentrates an impressionistic reworking of the dialogue into often witty contemporary prose. It gives a sense of the nuclear density of Racine’s tragic spirit, writing it down into a more human, psychological drama without losing its sense of myth and the desire to escape the myth. 



8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays through Nov.19. $9-$25. Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. 558-1382.